At a time when many farms are expanding to remain viable, Andy Gray has transformed his now 210-hectare operation into a profitable and progressive arable enterprise. But it has not been straightforward.
Mr Gray says: “Up until 2015 we were farming 325ha on a local estate under a Farm Business Tenancy (FBT) alongside 140ha rented and 70ha owned land.
“We developed a system which was working well for us and we’d invested heavily in staff and kit to service this kind of acreage.”
After farming on the FBT land for 45 years, the farm was rocked by the unexpected sale of the estate in 2015.
“Our tenancy was due for renewal so there was nothing we could do about the sale and at more than £12,000/acre we just couldn’t justify buying the land – our hands were tied,” Mr Gray says. “We had to look at other options.”
Utilising existing assets was key to an overhaul of the business.
“We had a lot of kit, including a 2011 New Holland CX8070 combine, Houseman AR 3000 sprayer and a catalogue of tractors and cultivation equipment which we had built up over the years but could no longer justify on our remaining acreage.
“Through the arable enterprise we also had a Law Denis grain drier and some existing shed space at the home farm which had always come in useful but we hadn’t really done a great deal with.
“Instead of investing more money in machinery and running around chasing land we had to assess what the farm owned and use this as a nucleus for growth.”
The sale of the estate also saw another tenant retire who had previously been involved with grain storage for local farmers. Mr Gray realised there was an opportunity to take on some of the business, which he was able to do using his continuous flow drier and spare shed space.
“This fitted in well with our plans to utilise our assets and really started the ball rolling for us,” he says.
In 2015 he installed a new 2,000-tonne grain store and weighbridge at the yard in north Warwickshire, within three miles of the M1, M6, M69 and A5 major road networks. Since 2015, a Matrot cleaning system has been installed at the TASCC assured store at Pailton Pastures and storage has been expanded to more than 13,500t capacity. Further expansion is in the pipeline.
A personal approach to business and support for local farmers and merchants is an important component in the success of the business.
“We are a local farming family and this ethos is reflected in our business model,” Mr Gray says.
“We have more than 70 storage contracts with local growers, which we offer in 300, 600 and 2,000t private bunkers.
“Anyone can store grain with us and where possible their product is not mixed in with everyone else’s.”
Passionate about sharing knowledge and collaborating with local farmers, Mr Gray holds an annual moisture meter clinic in early July, which regularly attracts more than 90 participants.
He reflects that one of the biggest challenges associated with setting up the grain store has been getting up to speed with the required paperwork and assurance protocols.
“My wife, Sue, is a partner in the business as well as being a full-time NHS nurse,” he says.
“Sue’s involved with everything to do with the grain store and handles much of the paperwork and assurance documentation. She has played a massive role in getting the business to where it is today.”
Alongside the grain store enterprise, the farm still grows barley, oats, wheat, oilseed rape and maize over 70ha owned and 140ha rented land.
“We try to keep 50% wheat in the rotation which has worked well for us in the past but black-grass is becoming a problem so we brought in maize and spring oats.
“Winter oilseed rape also used to be a good crop but we are not planning on growing any more, with 50ha failing last year with flea beetle.”
Mr Gray is experimenting with spring oilseed rape, which he says is showing some promise and will also help with black-grass management.
He is also keen to incorporate organic fertilisers into the system and swaps about three-quarters of his straw production for muck in an agreement with local pig and beef producers.
He also fattens about 90 store cattle over winter and provides full arable contracting services to local farmers, spraying 930ha and combining 485ha.
“After losing most of our tenanted land in 2015, we had the kit but didn’t want to reduce in scale or invest in more temporary assets,” he says.
Contracting seemed like the obvious solution to building farm income and retaining three full-time staff members.
He also thought it was important to stick with what the farm knew and did not want to spread his resources too thinly by offering a wide variety of contracting services.
As a result he increased the farm’s spraying capacity with the addition of a Bateman RB35 30/24-metre sprayer to run alongside the existing Househam AR, and swapped its existing combine for a New Holland CR9080 30ft cut harvester.
Both the sprayers and a Vicon fertiliser spreader have auto section control and all of the farm’s tractors are kitted out with GPS auto guidance, which comes in handy trailing the Vaderstad 4m Top Down cultivator, 6.5m Carrier cultivator and 4m Rapid drill.
Mr Gray says 2020 has been a difficult year for many growers, with the store receiving and cleaning a lot of distressed and infested grain.
In terms of storage, reduced yields were also a concern but he says the storage business has been fortunate to reach capacity by taking on a raft of new clients.
“We are looking forward to the future and we are keen to continue expanding the business and exploring other opportunities which utilise our assets.”
He says he has also received a number of enquiries from customers for rolled corn, which is something that could work well alongside the wheat, barley and beans they store.
“The most important thing to me is making sure we have good staff who enjoy their work and clients who are pleased with our results,” says Mr Gray.